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Interview with Sheikh Mohammed Al Rahbani

High-flying Saudi entrepreneur and philanthropist Sheikh Mohammed Al Rahbani lives life to the fullest while growing the family’s business empire in the region and overseas

For most individuals, there is a sanctuary. A place to call on cherished memories, to unwind in the present or seek inspiration for the future.

For Sheikh Mohammed Al Rahbani – captain of industry, progressive thinker, philanthropist, lover of fast cars and nature and family man – that place is Gstaad, the glamorous Swiss resort as famous for its royal visitors and celebrity lifestyle as for its movie set vistas.

“It’s my favourite place in the world,” Sheikh Mohammed tells Arabian Knight. Indeed, he loves the town so much that he owns a chalet just a stone’s throw from the iconic Palace Hotel, the grand old dame of Swiss sophistication, fashion and finesse. The chalet offers its own exclusive million-dollar views of this highly picturesque Alpine landscape. 

And yet it is in the lounge of his six-storey residence in London’s well-heeled Knightsbridge district that we meet this charming, urbane, gracious but discreet knight, as he seamlessly discusses the many kaleidoscopic threads which make up his rich and varied life. 

Jeddah-born and proudly Saudi with deep-rooted family and business ties to the Kingdom, it is the outdoor life, natural beauty and happy memories of Switzerland that run in Sheikh Mohammed’s blood. His family began frequenting Gstaad in the 1970s, and as a teenager he was educated first at the prestigious College du Leman preparatory school and then the International School in Geneva. 

“After that I was a man,” he says simply, before explaining why his 40-year love affair with the European country endures.

HIGH PROFILE LIFE

For this dynamic yet often media-shy entrepreneur at the helm of a multi-billion-dollar family empire established by his visionary father, the late Sheikh Haleem Faris Al Rahbani, life has, at times, resembled something of a movie set with Sheikh Mohammed and his father playing roles among a glittering cast of royalty, politicians and celebrities. 

He warmly recalls an official visit undertaken by the Al Rahbani family to Belgium in 1986 at the invitation of the then King Baudouin, where his father received an award for his services to industry. The sense of occasion and ceremony left a lasting impression on the teenage Mohammed, who was studying in Geneva at the time.

BEAUTIFUL CHILDHOOD

The years in Switzerland followed what father-of-three Sheikh Mohammed describes fondly as a “beautiful” childhood in Jeddah. Life, typically, revolved heavily around the family, and it was not uncommon for him to accompany Sheikh Haleem on business trips around the world. He was also inspired by the work of his mother, who in the late 1970s initiated a program, which continues to this day, to feed the less fortunate people in Jeddah.

Time spent travelling with his father also provided a unique bonding opportunity, and for the young Mohammed, one of four children, the chance to acquire the same sharp business acumen which had enabled his father to become a leading light in Jeddah’s social and community circles, as well as the founder of one of Saudi Arabia’s most successful and diversified family businesses. 

“I’m very proud of what my father has done for our city,” he says. Sheikh Haleem built Jeddah’s first hospital for women and children, the Maternity and Children’s Hospital, which remains a well-known city landmark. 

BUSINESS BONDS

The ties which would bind father and son in a formidable partnership were not always so clear cut. While Mohammed had always looked up in awe to the man who had built a business empire through shrewd investments in emerging sectors such as real estate and manufacturing, he concedes he had different dreams as a teenager. 

“I actually wanted to be a doctor, and then later a diplomat. At King Saud University in Riyadh I studied Political Science and Public Administration with a view to entering Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic corps. My father’s business seemed so overwhelming, so big, and I never imagined how I’d ever end up understanding it.

“He pushed me hard and that’s why I think in the early days I was reluctant to join the family business. He would include me in every meeting, and there was a lot of pressure,” he explains. 

Sheikh Haleem’s powers of persuasion were, however, eventually rewarded such that by the age of 20, Mohammed was a fixture in the family business, initially with Rahbani Group Limited (RGL), an oil and gas firm that was involved in Angola. Since then, he says he has grown to love the challenge and responsibility, and his career decision appears to have been overwhelmingly vindicated – he now oversees an empire actively involved in manufacturing and real estate, with a vast amount of overall assets in Saudi Arabia and overseas and involvement in some of the Kingdom’s biggest infrastructure projects.

He is the Chairman of Riyadh-based Safid, founded as a joint venture with Finland’s Nokia in 1979 and one of the GCC’s leading providers of engineered air solutions with operations in Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait. 

His portfolio of privately held interests include healthcare and industry, and he is responsible for a strategy of selective development opportunities to enhance the value of the Rahbani family landholdings in the Middle East and Europe worth more than $1 billion. 

That includes a massive plot of undeveloped land in the Wafra area of Kuwait in what used to be the Neutral Zone shared with Saudi Arabia, chalet developments on the Red Sea in Jeddah, and sites in Riyadh and the Eastern Province.


VISIONARY VENTURES

Sheikh Mohammed’s passion is palpable as he describes the group’s latest business ventures. Last year, he signed an agreement with San Diego-based Genomics Pathway which could revolutionize preventative healthcare in Saudi Arabia by providing new solutions for genetic testing and drug response. 

“Imagine, instead of being struck by diabetes in 20 years you can raise the flag now, and initiate changes to lifestyle and diet. I love the concept and wanted to bring it into the Kingdom. It’s simple – one saliva sample can generate a 50-page report detailing the food you eat, the drugs you take. My family did it, and I think it has huge potential to help families in the Kingdom, even if the government is still not warm to the idea yet. 

“Our intention is to move the laboratory from the US to Saudi Arabia with the intention of testing five per cent of the Kingdom’s population every year. It has the potential to save the government billions of dollars in treating preventable disease, but it is not cheap – we’d need government help.”

He is also excited about the AED1 billion ($272 million) United Iron & Steel joint venture in Abu Dhabi. As the project’s Chairman and a majority shareholder, Sheikh Mohammed hopes trial production could start in October 2016, eventually making 500,000 tonnes per year of high quality steel which Safid currently sources from Japan and Saudi Arabia.